The Junk Food Tax

August 10, 2009

Several years ago when I was in graduate school getting my masters in nutrition and dietetics, I remember having a class discussion about taxing junk food. In theory the tax, similar to the tax on cigarettes, seemed like it would be a good idea, but my classmates and I all agreed that in reality it would never happen. How could the government possibly decide what is and is not considered “junk.” Each individual has his or her own thoughts on this matter. Since that class discussion I didn’t hear much about the junk food tax idea until this past week.

Two separate articles (one in The Economist, the other in The Washington Post) focused on the resurgence of the argument for a junk food tax. The statistics on obesity are there to support this measure: one in four American adults is obese, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate the costs of obesity and obesity-related ailments, such as diabetes, to be $147 billion in 2008, up from $78.5 billion in 1998.

For the most part, the thought has been to tax sugary drinks — mostly soft drinks sweetened with sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. But there has also been some talk of taxing all fattening food of “little nutritional value.” The argument for the tax is that the money made from the tax will provide funding for public health initiatives to prevent obesity. Additionally, proponents of the tax think that taxing unhealthy food will discourage people from buying and eating that food. Sounds like it would be great, right?

While I agree that there needs to be a shift from treatment to prevention of obesity, and that the cost of healthful foods should be less than unhealthful ones, I don’t think this tax will get passed anytime soon. First of all, studies have shown that heavy users of cigarettes and alcohol are less influenced by increased prices than those who smoke and drink less. What makes anyone think heavy eaters of junk foods will be any different?

Secondly, what is considered “junk food”? Is it soda, candy bars, and chips? Or does it extend to white bread, fried chicken, and hot dogs? Undoubtedly the last three foods are unhealthy, providing refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, and nitrites. But they do provide nutritional value in the form of energy and protein.

Thirdly, where do we draw the line between holding people responsible for their actions (in this case buying unhealthy food) and government paternalism? People need to be motivated to make lifestyle changes, not forced into them because of lack of funds. Without motivation and an internal desire to change, people will resort to other measures to purchase junk food and continue other unhealthy behaviors as well.

Lastly, should those who enjoy an occasional sweet treat or salty snack be penalized for the poor choices others make?

As a dietitian, I myself am torn as to how I feel about a junk food tax.

What do you think?

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  1. How great that school cafeterias are becoming more aware to serve healthy, nutritious meals for kids…When they begin young making healthy food choices it will carry them thru adulthood…I wish I learned those healthy choices then, it wouldn’t be so hard for me now.